October 9, 2019

Back issues

s a teenager, there were two magazines that I subscribed to, without fail, every year: TV Guide and Sports Illustrated.* They’re both still around, technically, but I’m not even sure you can call them mere shells of their former selves. Each, in its time, was the preeminent “serious” publication in their respective genres; in today’s clickbait culture, they’re now some of the clickbatiest.

*I know I don't usually italicize TV Guide, but here it's being used in conjunction with other magazines whose titles I do italicize; it would look funny otherwise.

I had cause in the last week to think about each of them in terms of what has been lost, through various ownership changes, evolutions in taste, and a general dumbing-down of society. (Current readers excluded, of course; if you happen to be reading these words, I have nothing but the highest admiration for your intellect, though I do wonder if you might not have something better to do.) You may have read about the latest to befall SI; the new owners took over last week and promptly cut half of the workforce, introducing a business plan that sounds suspiciously like some kind of a pyramid scheme involving LLCs, freelancers, and unpaid college students. (And no kidding about the pyramid part; the diagram accompanying their business plan is an actual, freaking pyramid. Of all the qualities that the new ruling class possess, irony is apparently not one of them.) One of the first stories to come from the “new” SI, a report on Saturday night’s Notre Dame-Bowling Green game, sounded as if it had been written as a first draft by a stringer for a high school newspaper. It causes even a semi-professional writer such as yours truly to look around, imagine inhabiting this world, and think of Charlton Heston’s words in Planet of the Apes: “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this publication.” Or something like that.

It’s been decades since I’ve subscribed to SI; I dropped it sometime in the ‘80s, I think. After that, I only read it when I was stuck in a doctor’s office with nothing else to do but thumb around a months’-old magazine and find out who won last year’s Super Bowl. SI’s specialty had never been bring you the scores; you could get those in your newspaper. No, what its talented staff did was to give you the story behind the story, the in-depth profile that went beyond the fan-friendly propaganda you read elsewhere. And, of course, there was the stunning photography, from a time when not every sporting event was on TV, and the ones that were were often in black-and-white. It allowed you to actually see what was going on, not just read about it. Its writers included some of the greatest: Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Herbert Warren Wind, Paul Zimmerman, George Plimpton, Tex Maule, Robert Creamer, and others. It was kind of like the New Yorker of sports, and though I also read Dick Schaap’s Sport magazine, SI was the one to which I subscribed.

I gave up on the magazine when it started to become too political, when there were too many sports, like white-water rafting, that I just didn’t care about, and when the swimsuit issue turned into barely-concealed soft-core porn. (Pun intended.) I might have had withdrawal for a couple of weeks, but by then there were other serious magazines to pursue, such as Inside Sports and Deford’s failed daily sports newspaper The National. Eventually, I pretty much lost interest in most sports, which is where we are today.

The reason I bring this up—a topic that seems to have little to do with television—is the second occasion, which I alluded to up there at the beginning of the second paragraph. It was the day before yesterday, and I’d stopped at the post office to mail some TV Guides back to the generous benefactor who had loaned them to me (you’ll be reading one of them this Saturday). The woman at the window asked me what kind of magazines I was mailing back, and I told her they were TV Guides from the 1960s and 1970s. I write about them, I said modestly.

TV Guide!’ she said, as if I’d brought up a long-lost old friend. “I remember that! We used to wait for that every week, and then look through it”—and here she made a motion with her hands, as if she were paging through the magazine—“to see what all was on! That was good reading!”

She turned to her co-worker at the next window. “You remember TV Guide?”

“Sure,” she said. “We used to read that every week! Is that even still around?”

“Yeah,” the first woman said, “but now it’s jes' like some gossip sheet. That’s all they do. It used to be good reading!”

I left with a smile, not just because it had been a pleasant conversation, but because it proved that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way about the old magazine. Like SI, TV Guide had once been a respected, weekly publication that dealt with serious issues. Like SI, it had a stable of great writers—Edith Efron, Richard K. Doan, Cleveland Amory, Neil Hickey, John Gregory Dunne and more—and like SI, it was now published every-other-week, with a tabloid-like mentality, and a website that reads as if it was written by publicists to the stars and has little to say about anything. When you jettison your heritage like this, you lose your institutional memory; in TV Guide's case, the memory is not of the latest stars, or the current gossip—it is the history of television, of the industries, of the shows that came to fame and helped make the medium what it is. Losing that memory is like losing your family album; you're left wondering who you are and where you came from.

Looking back on these memories is guaranteed to make you feel old beyond your years, which is one of the reasons why I do this blog—to make something productive from a memory that might otherwise break your heart, or at least drive you to drink. But what can you do? Times change, people change, tastes change. That this change is not always for the best is beyond the point; it simply is. It does no good to encase yourself in a sentimental nostalgia that acts as a cocoon protecting you from the present time. The past is to be enjoyed, savored, learned from—and to act as an escape only occasionally. As I’m fond of saying, I don’t live in the past, I just vacation there a lot. I’ve met so many terrific people since I started writing seriously about classic television—not just the ladies at the post office, but my friends at MANC, my correspondents, the people who’ve bought my books, and you readers out there, who make yourselves felt even though I might never meet you, or even hear from you.

No, there are good things about the present—not the least of which is all the all the great people you meet when you’re talking about the past. TV  


  1. Straight from the heart with this one, Mitchell. Those were the two magazines my family subscribed to as well and what has been done to both makes sites like yours so important in terms of preserving something that had gravitas and was welcomed weekly, now casualties of today's media circus mentality. I wonder if anyone is doing a similar blog for old SI's? Maybe in retirement.....I have a lot of them.

    1. There's always the SI Vault, although I don't know how long that will last under this new ownership.

    2. Good point, diskojoe. Most of mine are from the mid 60's through the 70's so at least I can share them if the Vault shuts down. My 1967 collection has the great AL pennant race along with the AFL and NFL preview issue.

  2. "One of the first stories to come from the “new” SI, a report on Saturday night’s Notre Dame-Bowling Green game, sounded as if it had been written as a first draft by a stringer for a high school newspaper."
    I'm willing to bet it wasn't even written by a human :)

  3. I've discussed my history with TV Guide collecting both with you & in comments here. I finally let my subscription lapse after the magazine gave up on local editions in 2005.

    I was very interested in subscribing to Sports Illustrated when I was first aware of its contents in 1985. It used to have great coverage of all the college games in the major conferences. All of a sudden a year later, I'm not sure why this happened, but SI no longer did the conference coverage and did away with a lot of what made it special. I've still never subscribed, and I'm sure politics ruined what was left of any appeal of the magazine for me.

  4. Nothing I can think to add to this. Bravo.

  5. Jon, you're right that SI got a 'new look' in 1986, with many cosmetic changes, including a redesigned logo, and a somewhat different format that did away with its old 'recap of the week' columns for most sports.
    I read it regularly starting in 1987, and subscribed for over 25 years. For me, the downhill slide started in the mid-90s, when the internet rendered its extensive game recaps obsolete.

    Like Mitchell, I often skipped articles about some niche sports I wasn't interestered in, but by the turn of the century, the magazine was focused on mostly NFL and NBA coverage, and everything else seemed like filler.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!